A Swiss country star who toured with Shania Twain, the onetime singer for Americana rock band the Whiskey Gentry and a Kenyan singer-songwriter with a fresh take on the American experience make up our list of artists you need to hear this month.
Sounds Like: If Dylan sang Odetta, and not the other way around
For Fans of: Tallest Man on Earth, Andrew Bird and Bob Dylan, naturally
Why You Should Pay Attention: Though it often lives under the umbrella of Americana, folk music is nowhere near a uniquely American experience. But J.S. Ondara, growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, was uniquely fascinated with the sounds that emanated from artists who did so much with nothing but a story, a melody and a guitar — quite specifically, Bob Dylan. After spending much of his teens listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, finding Dylan was the true revelation. And, much like the young Bard himself chasing Woody Guthrie to New York, when Ondara finally made it stateside he headed straight to the homeland: Dylan’s home state of Minnesota. There, he worked on honing the songs that would become his debut LP, Tales of America, a collection of experiences born out of the aspirations, dreams and difficulties of a changing country from the perspective of an immigrant, with optimism leading the way.
He Says: “I was drawn to Dylan and the mystery of his persona, and the adventurous and resilient nature of his career. His songs were wildly different from anything I heard before. I grew up listening to all these rock songs, and I wasn’t aware there was music that raw that people would actually listen to. I was like, ‘What is this?’ I was puzzled. It’s part of why I moved there, too: I felt a kinship with [Dylan] as a human being. I’m a romantic, and I go where my heart calls me to and do whatever it demands.”
Hear for Yourself: “It’s an examination of the American dream from the eyes of an outsider,” Ondara says of “American Dream,” the first single from Tales of America that evokes a bit of Tracy Chapman. In today’s political climate, it’s a welcome reminder of the promise this country can still hold — particularly when it welcomes all with open arms. M.M.
Sounds Like: A strong and clever songwriter and performer confident in showing her vulnerable side, and holding nothing back
For Fans of: Miranda Lambert, Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood
Why You Should Pay Attention: Nora Collins is nothing if not driven. While self-booking around 200 solo shows every year in her native Wisconsin over the past few years, she also made the nine-hour drive to Nashville once a month until she landed a publishing deal, which prompted her to relocate to Music City. She’s since made an impression with figures like Vince Gill, and her new six-song EP, Strings (out November 2nd), features Gill’s distinctive “million dollar voice” in the background of new single “Plain Jane.”
She Says: “I wrote [‘Plain Jane’] on a day when I wasn’t feeling good enough. I was scrolling through Instagram that morning and comparing myself to other people, and I wasn’t feeling pretty enough or talented enough to make it in this industry. [It’s] the story of a girl who’s learning to be comfortable in her own skin, and I wanted to give the message that everything’s going to be OK, that life is hard and people make mistakes, and it’s OK to have insecurities. The song was really a pep talk to myself. It was an amazing experience to be there when [Vince Gill] was doing the background vocal. He took his time and he wanted to get it right. It was so funny — he came in and was like, ‘OK, if you don’t like what I’m doing, feel free to fire me!'”
Hear for Yourself: Backed by a clean-picked guitar and a shuffling beat, “Plain Jane” shows off Collins’ voice while blending classic country and pop influences with a bonus clutch performance from Gill. J.B.
Sounds Like: Southern country charm and grooves that are as warm and inviting as homemade apple pie cooling in an open window
For Fans of: Adam Hood, Hayes Carll, John Prine
Why You Should Pay Attention: Montgomery, Alabama, native Davis Nix grew up in a family with strong music roots. Raised by two songwriters, Nix remembers early morning piano and vocal lessons from his mother, Wednesday church choir practices, and his father’s songs echoing around the house. It all prompted Nix to learn guitar at 10 and was quickly followed by his first drum kit. Now, all that practice is paying off for Nix, who recently released Part One, a sharp and earthy six-song EP. With co-writes with the likes of Adam Hood, Aaron Raitiere, and Chris Canterbury, Nix’s down-home brand of country banks on laid-back grooves, rootsy tones, velvety vocals, and a winking sense of humor.
He Says: “The song ‘Oughta Mighta Notta,’ my dad used to say that to us as a kid. ‘Davis, you oughta mighta notta wanna do that, buddy.’ I kept that in my pocket. That and ‘One in the Same,’ I wrote with Aaron Raitiere. They were probably about six months apart. I laughed though when I realized we had put John Prine in both of them. Maybe that can be our thing. I do love John Prine, but it’s not like one day you wake up and have Prine’s vocabulary and rhyme schemes. My dad was a songwriter and put out a few records in the late Seventies and early Eighties. He always wrote in a similar way and played his songs around the house. I guess a little bit rubbed off along the way.”
Hear for Yourself: “Love Me Crazy” is a love-craving toe-tapper that finds Nix yearning for a dormant flame to be rekindled. T.M.
Sounds Like: Intimate acoustic folk anchored by butter-smooth close-harmony vocals and minimalist-yet-sophisticated arrangements
For Fans of: Milk Carton Kids, Mandolin Orange, Good Old War
Why You Should Pay Attention: Identical twins Adam and David Moss have been honing their joint vocal chemistry since they were kids growing up in Illinois, often singing along to their dad’s Everly Brothers and Beach Boys records. After both earning music degrees at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the brothers went their separate ways: Adam playing fiddle in the Texas bluegrass band Green Mountain Grass and David spearheading the indie-folk outfit the Blue Hit. The siblings eventually both moved to Brooklyn and decided that musically they were better off together. They’ve recently opened for Lake Street Dive and I’m With Her, commanding attention with quietly forceful combined voices that are strengthened by familial bonds. In October, the duo released their debut full-length album, Some People I Know, a collection of vivid character-driven songs that highlights the brothers’ intuitive singing and individual songwriting skills, as its moves from the pastoral calmness of “Banjo Song” to the desolate noir mood of “The Gambler.”
They Say: “We were singing as soon as we could talk,” says Adam Moss. “As we got older we were listening to Simon & Garfunkel and the Kingston Trio, so we were harmonizing at an early age too. It was very natural, at first, but then we learned to invent things, and that took a little bit of work. We actually don’t write songs together. We get along pretty well, but that’s one area of contention, where we each get our own creative space.”
Hear for Yourself: With its plaintive fiddle lines, “Frankie” is a sad-eyed ballad about a blue-collar barfly begrudgingly witnessing his old neighborhood lose its identity through gentrification. J.F.
Sounds Like: Cerebral alt-country from an unusually versatile singer
For Fans of: Will Johnson, Wilco, Craig Finn
Why You Should Pay Attention: West Virginia’s William Matheny is beloved in the region’s touring circuit, serving as an instrumentalist for bands like Southeast Engine and the Paranoid Style. A favorite of Tyler Childers — with whom he has shared bills — Matheny introduced himself as a thoughtful songwriter with catholic tastes on his 2017 debut Strange Constellations, recalling the anthemic rock of bands like the Hold Steady (“Living Half to Death”) and alternative country from the school of Centro-matic (“God’s Left Hand”) in equal measure. His 2018 EP Moon Over Kenova, which actually spans 14 tracks and features a cover of Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” deepens Matheny’s musical pedigree, with its title track evoking the style and spirit of early Jeff Tweedy.
He Says: “I wrote ‘Christian Name’ in December of last year. We had just come off the road for the holidays and I was physically and emotionally running on fumes after months of too little sleep and too much of all the stuff that I sing about in the song. I could no longer ignore the fact that the check-engine light had been on in my life for a while and no amount of touring, free alcohol or the company of strangers could help me outrun myself. ‘Christian Name’ is the sound of me getting back on my feet, but only after I’d spent some time crawling.”
Hear for Yourself: Matheny released the confessional track “Christian Name” as a B-side to his cover of Centro-matic’s “Flashes and Cables,” the two sonically complementing one another with melodic, garage-influenced twang. B.M.
Sounds Like: Melodic pop cool effortlessly delivered through a blend of charmingly soulful vocals, warm instrumentation, and radio-friendly synth beats
For Fans of: Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett, Dierks Bentley
Why You Should Pay Attention: After making a name for himself in his native Switzerland with a trio of successful albums (including the platinum-selling Tomorrow May Not Be Better), singer-songwriter Bastian Baker has set his sights on American audiences with this month’s release of his self-titled album. Along with a handful of producers and songwriters versed in a variety of genres, Baker has crafted a collection of 14 new songs that take the folk-pop foundations of his first three albums into new sonic spaces. Earlier this summer, Baker opened 45 dates of Shania Twain’s Now World Tour and he even performed a duet with the iconic country-pop superstar during her set each night. Baker credits Twain as an inspiration for his own country-influenced sonic shapeshifting: “Shania’s never been afraid to color outside the lines when it comes to crossing genres and I really admire that about her.”
He Says: “Country music is slowly moving into my Swiss neck of the woods. People here sometimes have a misconception that country music automatically involves yodeling and a banjo — an instrument I’ve even incorporated into my music — but what they don’t know is that the easy-going culture and beautiful environment we live in here is often the topic of some of the best country songs. I look at country music as the most organic genre out there. I’m bringing everything I’ve learned in Nashville back with me to Switzerland and people are loving it.”
Hear for Yourself: While “Blame it on Me” lyrically addresses relational woe with metaphorical guns and knives, Baker and co-producer Jordan Lehning (Kacey Musgraves, Caitlin Rose) couch the combative imagery within a brightly-strummed acoustic and a molasses-sticky electric guitar line that brings a bit of lift to the somber subject matter. W.H.
Sounds Like: The songs you wish you heard on country radio — if country radio still played women
For Fans of: Sunny Sweeney, Angaleena Presley, the Whiskey Gentry
Why You Should Pay Attention: You may already know Lauren Morrow from her work with the Whiskey Gentry, an Atlanta-based Americana rock band who first made its debut in 2009. With her self-titled solo EP, Morrow has struck out on her own, debuting four songs that showcase her tender songwriting and inward-looking artistic vision. The EP tracks show a softer, twangier side to Morrow than those with the Whiskey Gentry, which tend more toward poppy Southern rock, and allow ample space for her to showcase her nimble voice. Longtime fans of the band may not be surprised by Morrow’s vocal prowess, but her solo work manages to uncover new sides of her voice, as showcased in the gentle quavers and subtle dynamism on the vulnerable break-up ballad “I Don’t Think About You at All.”
She Says: “The whole idea of switching gears to Lauren Morrow was my husband/co-writer/bandmate Jason’s [Morrow] idea. I never thought I had the guts to stand out front alone, but like always, Jason sees the real me when I can’t, and he pushes me to live my fullest. Initially, it was pretty scary to make the leap: All eyes are looking at you, and you can no longer hide behind the collective unit of a band. But honestly, this whole experience has allowed me to tap into a confidence and drive that I’d thought I’d lost somewhere along the way. I feel more empowered than ever to stand tall and confidently show my truest self to the world.”
Hear for Yourself: Morrow honors her mother with “Viki Lynn,” a sweet, mid-tempo country-rocker sure to generate smiles. B.M.
Sounds Like: A soulful, acrobatic vocalist with a strong sense of melody and even stronger knack for crafting an affecting narrative
For Fans of: Brandi Carlile, Elise Davis, Jillian Jacqueline
Why You Should Pay Attention: Katie Pruitt doesn’t have a proper studio release yet, but the Nashville-based singer-songwriter has already developed a following with her OurVinyl Live EP, which features five original songs recorded live before a small audience. Tracks like “Grace Has a Gun,” which grapples with the devastating effects of an emotionally abusive partner, and “Loving Her,” a soaring declaration of LGBT pride, show Pruitt to be a true triple threat with pitch-perfect vocals, smartly crafted lyrics and crunchy, roots-rock guitar. Pruitt’s appearance at this year’s AmericanaFest, which she describes to Rolling Stone Country as being an “incredible” experience, caught the ears of outlets like NPR — further proof that Pruitt’s star will only rise higher.
She Says: “‘Loving Her’ was one of those songs that fell out of me in under an hour. Not only had I wrestled with the concept before, but it was also backed by a lot of very real life experience. I grew up as a closeted gay girl in Georgia. Born into a religious family and sent to Catholic school for the first half of my life, I was taught many things were a sin, and being gay was one of them. Let’s just say it wasn’t an easy adjustment to come to terms with the inevitable. It was just a genuine response to everyone who ever told me I was wrong for loving someone.”
Hear for Yourself: On “Loving Her,” Pruitt echoes both the melodic agility and vulnerable storytelling of Brandi Carlile, opening the track with the gut-punch of a lyric, “If loving her’s a sin, I don’t wanna go to heaven.” B.M.
Sounds Like: Country-rock with a deep, poetic reverence for the land in which it was born; Kim Richey covering John Moreland’s “Sallisaw Blue”
For Fans of: Kelsey Waldon, Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball
Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in Atlanta, Kristina Murray followed a love of bluegrass to the mountains of Colorado, where she spent years honing her skills in the local honky-tonks and dive bars despite a Georgian’s disdain for the cold and snow. A little over four years ago she made the transition to Nashville’s warmer pastures, and quickly found her way in the independent country scene, spending time at Derek Hoke’s $2 Tuesday at the 5 Spot and eventually the Honky Tonk Tuesday’s at East Nashville’s American Legion. It was there she “made a community” out of fellow artists like Waldon and Michaela Anne and wrote songs that dug deep into the Southern experience. On her sophomore LP, Southern Ambrosia, Murray continues this exploration with an ear finely tuned to the details of life below the Mason-Dixon: she highlights the every day glories, the long-standing traditions and the tainted pasts, too.
She Says: “I didn’t set out to write that kind of record, but when we looked at all the songs together, it was threaded like that,” Murray says about the unique ways that Southern Ambrosia brings to life the intricacies of the modern Southern experience. “I was born and raised in Atlanta, which is the heartbeat of the South for so many reasons. Those tropes about being Southern that harken back to the big lie that we learned in school about ‘The War of Northern Aggression,’ that’s all changing. We have this beautiful new south that is really diverse and different and not playing to the old stereotypes.
Hear for Yourself: “Forged out of red clay and Georgia rain,” she sings on “Made in America,” Southern Ambrosia’s opener that sets the tone with her smooth quiver and inquisitive strum. “I learned how to fight and drink and pray. And live right through the pain.” M.M.
Sounds Like: A soundtrack for the grand tour that celebrates classic country’s history of rowdy crooners and sentimental outlaws
For Fans of: George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Sturgill Simpson
Why You Should Pay Attention: While it could be said that James Carothers got a bit of a late jump on his music career — he kicked things off at the age of 33 — he’s more than made up for any lost time by logging in over a thousand shows throughout a variety of downtown Nashville haunts. Most nights, Carothers can be found holding court at the George Jones Museum, a gig for which he was personally hired for by the Possum’s widow Nancy. After releasing his debut EP Honky Tonk Land in 2014 and his first full-length album Relapse in 2017, Carothers decided to honor Jones’s legendary catalog this year with a pitch-perfect tribute album called Still Country, Still King. The set of 10 heartfelt covers was released this past September and landed at Number 16 on the iTunes Country Chart. Earlier this year, Carothers won the 2018 WSM Road Show Live Finale, earning him the opportunity to make his Grand Ole Opry debut with Alan Jackson at an upcoming show. Carothers is prepping an album of original material to be released early next year that he describes as being “more akin to George Strait or Alan Jackson.”
He Says: When explaining his reasons for recording a George Jones tribute album, Carothers is unabashed in his admiration for the legend: “When I started picking guitar and singing all the time, I realized that George Jones was the best country singer. His music is inspiring to me because it’s old soul music. Even when he recorded it, it was already traditional country music. The thing that I learned through recording this tribute album is that George Jones’ voice was so good that it attracted the best songwriters, musicians, and producers for an incredible span of 50 years.”
Hear for Yourself: From its opening lyric “There’s hip-hop beats at the Opry, I’d never thought I’d see the day,” Carothers’ honky-tonk testimonial “Back to Hank” pulls no punches as it simultaneously pines for the sound of solid country gold and propels it into the present day. W.H.